Avalanche search teams suffer “stress injuries” over time

Media coverage member Travis Sirek (right) of Summit County Search and Rescue Group talks to Laura McGladrey, a clinician at the University of Colorado Stress, Trauma, Adversity Research and Treatment Center (center), and Aaron Parmet (left) Medical Summit County Rescue Group officer as part of a staged avalanche rescue near Ten Mile Canyon National Recreation Trail at Vail Pass on March 11, 2021. (Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post)

The memory of a rescue mission a decade ago still haunts Charles Pitman. Recalling the picture of a father and uncle praying for a boy aged 10 or 11 on a mountainside while rescuers performed CPR on him, Pitman paused to collect tears in their eyes.

It was one of Pitman’s first missions with the Summit County Rescue Group. A family had been snowmobiling on Vail Pass, just a mile or two from Pitman, when he described that tragic day. The boy had accidentally driven the snowmobile that hit a tree. In a blinding blizzard at 11,500 feet, nurses on-site while skiing performed CPR, but it soon became apparent that there was no point in continuing.

“You can see it was years ago, probably ten, twelve years ago,” Pitman said. “It was that hard. I’ve faced many deaths. That kind of comes with the nature of what we do. But I think the fact that it was a kid hit it really, really hard. “

Search and rescue teams have to deal with the consequences of trauma, death and grief of the next of kin, regardless of whether it is accidents, avalanche victims or missing hikers in the summer. Pitman spoke after members of the Colorado search and rescue community hosted a media event and training scenario on Vail Pass Thursday to demonstrate how to react when victims are caught in avalanches.

Mountain search and rescue teams made up of volunteers conduct similar training on a regular basis. Dale Atkins, a rescue team member since 1974 who also served 19 years as a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said most train on-site for at least two weekend days a month, along with two or three midweek classes.

Search and rescue members look for a living person buried in a simulated avalanche debris field. Colorado search and rescue teams from five counties simulated an avalanche rescue at Vail Pass on March 11th. (Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post)

The reality, however, is that no matter how fast they get to the scene or how well organized their search is, they are usually too late to rescue a victim buried in an avalanche.

“We’re most likely to find a body, and it’s a recovery,” said Atkins, who works with the Alpine Rescue Team that covers Clear Creek, Jefferson and Gilpin counties. “We have that in mind. While we search, there is always hope that we will prove wrong and find someone alive. The sad reality is that we seldom find people alive. “

Most mountain search and rescue team members have to identify with the victims because they are also avid skiers, snowboarders or snowmobilers in their free time. They regularly conduct risk assessments when recovering in the backcountry, just as their victims did before the snow slide.

“We all in search and rescue love to do the same things,” said Atkins. “Every accident, every rescue affects us. We have our options to deal with it. Often we have discussions with our friends in the team because we have these shared experiences, but they can build up over time. I think all rescue groups have lost some good members who left the team too early, so to speak, due to some of the experiences they had in dealing with the deceased. “

Colorado had eleven month and a half avalanche deaths that season, one less than in 1993, which is why representatives of multiple rescue teams, county sheriff departments, the Avalanche Information Center, and the Colorado Search and Rescue Association were made available to the media at the Vail Pass exercise.

“It’s been a pretty bad year historically in terms of snowpack conditions and fatal avalanche accidents,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Avalanche Information Center. “We’re starting to turn the tide a bit with regard to snowpack conditions. The recent dry, very warm weather has helped heal some of our really problematic weak layers, but we’re still a long way from the woods. The coming storm (this weekend) has the potential to drop enough snow and create enough load to wake up those deeper weak layers and create much larger and more destructive avalanches. The danger of avalanches will increase. “

Colorado search and rescue teams from five counties simulated an avalanche rescue near the Ten Mile Canyon National Recreation Trail on Vail Pass on March 11, 2021. Two search and rescue members attempt to find a test dummy buried in the snow near an overturned snowmobile in a simulated avalanche slide. (Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post)

In the training scenario, Pitman played the role of the mission coordinator. The exercise began by interviewing a teammate from the Summit County Rescue Group who posed in the mock avalanche scenario as a “reporting party” – the term rescuers use to refer to people who have avalanche victims if they are caught.

“I need to get as much information from you as possible so that they know what to look for,” Pitman told Travis Sirek’s reporting party, a colleague with the Summit County Rescue Group. “Help me out of here. How many people and what did you do? Do you know where they were caught? “

Pitman asked what the missing were wearing and if they were wearing avalanche transceivers. He explained what happened at the beginning of the search. Sirek asked if he could actively help in the search as the victims were his friends.

“I understand and I know how traumatic it is right now,” Pitman said. “But believe me, we will do everything we can to find you as soon as possible.”

Sensors and avalanche dogs were used in the search. Seekers “probe lines” sank 10-foot poles into the rubble and poked the snow for signs of victims. Radios crackled as rescue workers tried to make the scenario as realistic as possible.

Keena, an avalanche search and rescue dog from the Summit County Search and Rescue Group, makes horizontal laps of a simulated avalanche slide in search of a living person buried in the snow. It wasn’t long before Keena found Jesse Reller of the Summit County Search Group, who was buried in the snow. (Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post)

“Two victims found, both died,” came a radio update. And later: “Be warned, the coroner has been notified, the victims’ lawyers are on their way.”

Laura McGladrey was on site, representing the Responder Alliance, an organization that helps people in search and rescue, law enforcement, fire fighting, nursing, and others who are regularly exposed to trauma and death scenes to help them out To support processing of their experiences.

“When they say 500,000 COVID deaths, I think 500,000 nurses have seen someone die and we have to care for them,” said McGladrey, a psychiatric nurse who works in stress, trauma, adversity research and education (START) Center at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.

She also has two decades of mountain rescue experience. She recently worked with the Eldora Ski Patrol after two people were killed on the slopes in as many days. She said the effects of trauma and death on rescuers accumulate over time like snow on a slope until an avalanche occurs, a breaking point at which rescuers experience emotional “stress injuries”. Talking to the next of kin, she said, was “more effective” for her than finding bodies.

“If we watch the woman with the kids, she’ll get into our fabric,” said McGladrey. “It is these contacts that stay with rescue workers for years. When I ask rescuers what two incidents you’ve come across throughout your rescue career, it almost always comes down to, “There’s a family and I just couldn’t do anything about it.” ”

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Keena, an avalanche search and rescue dog, is rewarded by her owner and handler Doug Lesch, both of the Summit County Search and Rescue Group, after she found Jesse Reller of the Summit County Search Group who did the simulation. (Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post)

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